Authors Guild Sues Universities, Hathitrust For Copyright Infringement Over Digitally Scanned Books

Posted on September 12, 2011

The Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des ecrivaines et des Ecrivains Quebecois (UNEQ), and eight individual authors announced that they have filed suit against the University of Michigan, four other universities and Hathitrust for copyright infringement over millions of books scanned for the Google book project.

The Guild alleges that the books were scanned illegally without prior permission of the various copyright owners. The suit demands that the unauthorized scans of 7 million copyright-protected books be impounded pending Congressional action on the issue.

The universities (including the University of Michigan, University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University) pooled their books for scanning. The University of Michigan holds the pooled book scans at the offices of Hathitrust, which it created to hold the scans. The authors that are parties to the suit are children's book author and illustrator Pat Cummings, novelists Angelo Loukakis, Roxana Robinson, Daniele Simpson, and Fay Weldon, poet Andre Roy, Columbia University professor and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning biographer T.J. Stiles.

The suit was triggered in June, when Michigan announced that it would allow unlimited downloads by students and faculty members that it calls "orphans" under copyright law. The first batch is set to be downloaded on October 13th.

Angelo Loukakis, executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, said in a release: "This is an upsetting and outrageous attempt to dismiss authors' rights. Maybe it doesn't seem like it to some, but writing books is an author's real-life work and livelihood. This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection. These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books."

Daniele Simpson, president of UNEQ, expressed outrage in a statement: "I was stunned when I learned of this. How are authors from Quebec, Italy or Japan to know that their works have been determined to be 'orphans' by a group in Ann Arbor, Michigan? If these colleges can make up their own rules, then won't every college and university, in every country, want to do the same?"

Authors Guild president Scott Turow blasted the universities' actions: "These books, because of the universities' and Google's unlawful actions, are now at needless, intolerable digital risk. Even if it weren't for this preposterous, ad-hoc initiative, we'd have a major problem with the digital repository. Authors shouldn't have to trust their works to a group that's making up the rules as it goes along."

There are hundreds of thousands of works in the digital collection, many of them by well-known authors. The lawsuit over the Google book scanning project is still pending in federal court. The Authors Guild and other plaintiffs want the free downloads stopped and the scans turned over to the Guild until a decision is reached in that case, or Congress intervenes. The next status conference in the federal case is on September 15th.